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Invisible Injustices - 69

Invisible Injustices - 69

On 2017 October 2, the much proclaimed and popularized Swachh Bharat Abhiyan programme will be three years old and it is time to take a look at the way the mission has been implemented. The following is gist of the most enlightening discussion I had with a free thinking friend of mine.

I was the one who initiated an informal discussion between the two of us on the subject.  “On 2014 October 2, Narendra Modi launched the Swachh Bharat Mission, the most ambitious cleanliness campaign in the history of India. The aim was to clean up India from all garbage by Oct 2, 2019. Modi, in a dramatic style, appeared before a battery of cameras to sweep the courtyard of a police station in a Dalit residential colony in central Delhi said that a clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his one-hundred-and-fiftieth birth anniversary in 2019. He promised to transform sanitation and waste-management in the country by that day. After three years anyone can see that the Swachh Bharat Mission is far from achieving its target. The national capital and all the state capitals are littered literally with mountains of stinking garbage; so too most of the cities and towns. The slum areas in the cities and towns are breeding place for disease spreading flies and other insects, worms and bacteria. The United Nations, in a report on water access and sanitation in India released in 2015, said that 564 million of the country’s people still defecated in the open. They accounted for nearly half of the country’s population and form over half of the 1.1 billion people across the world who defecated in the open. The UN estimated that 65,000 tons of uncovered, untreated faeces—equal to the weight of around 180 Airbus A380s—were being introduced into the environment in India every single day.”

My erudite friend was patiently listening to all my woes and worries on Swachh Bharat and as I stopped for a moment to see his reaction he simply said, “Transforming sanitation in India will require a large-scale change in the belief system of Indian people”.

I didn’t quiet catch what he was trying to say and I went on to say that the government claims over 42.6 million latrines had already been built (the statistics on toilets varies with organization to organization); but very few of them are in usable condition; many of them are incomplete as is the case with most of the projects in India; those complete are waiting for water connection; those that are used once or twice are waiting to be cleaned; many of them are surrounded by garbage heaps because people thought naturally that the toilet area is the fitting place for dumping garbage. I looked at my friend for his reaction to what I have already said. But friend just nodded pensively and indicated to go ahead in my assessment of Swachh Bharat mission. I continued.

India’s crisis of sanitation has huge costs. The UN estimates that around 117,000 of the deaths of Indian children under the age of five in 2015 were caused by diarrhoea, the incidence of which correlates closely with the quality of sanitation in an area. This means that 10% of all deaths under the age of five in the country are due to diarrhoea the incidence of which is the highest recorded anywhere in the world. Diarrhoea and other diseases related to poor sanitation can have long-term debilitating effects such as malnutrition and stunting. They all have costs in terms of decreased productivity, expenditure on treatment and premature deaths. In a report on the global costs of poor sanitation, co-authored by the Charity Water Aid, in 2015 valued the loss to India’s economy at $106 billion per year, or over 5% of its gross domestic product.

My friend was silently listening to my presentation carefully without showing any reaction and I continued.

The government of India hence partnered with several celebrities for this mission with an aim to achieve an Open-Defecation Free (ODF) India by 2019 October 2. The celebrities who have supported the cause include Amitabh Bachchan, Anushka Sharma, Shilpa Shetty, Virat Kohli, Priyanka Chopra, Sachin Tendulkar and Salman Khan. While some of these celebrities featured in the ad campaigns for the cause, others were seen supporting the cause by picking a broom. Both public and private sector companies vied with each other in constructing toilets all over the country; they did it more for their own publicity. 4.17 lakh toilets were constructed in 2.61 lakh schools under the Swachh Vidyalaya initiative that aimed to provide 100% access to functional toilets across all elementary and secondary schools in the country. As many as 64 public sector units, including Life Insurance Corporation of India and State Bank of India, and 11 private firms, such as Coca Cola and ITC, took part in building toilets in schools. Most of them remain incomplete, unutilized or locked up due to lack of water. One survey reports 63% of the households that defecated in the open reported having toilets without running water.

The rapid survey also revealed that lack of infrastructure for drainage and disposal of waste. Around 45% of the villages surveyed did not have any drainage arrangement while 63% of wards did not have a liquid waste disposal system for their toilets.

Also, 44% of wards did not have any sewer lines while nearly 36% of the wards did not have a dumping place for solid waste. Nearly 22% of the wards surveyed also did not have any street cleaning arrangement.

 As per published reports, in 2015, the BJP government had announced it would spend around Rs 200 crore in marketing the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan for the next four years.

A recently released draft of the State of Environment Report 2015 shows that the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan lacks the component of waste management.

The environment ministry data suggests that the perception about cleanliness of cities may differ quite sharply from the reality.

According to the state of the environment report, the number of hazardous waste generating industries has risen from an estimated 36,165 generating 6.2 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2009 to 42,429 generating 7.8 million tonnes of hazardous waste in 2015. More than half of India’s hazardous waste is generated in the states of Gujarat and Maharashtra.

The Swachh Bharat Mission Urban or SBM(U) is supposed to cost  Rs . 62,000 crores, of which one-fourth will be borne by the Union Government and the rest by the state governments and the local municipal bodies. But the municipal bodies often cite unavailability of funds. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi for example, was unable to begin work on any Swachh Bharat related projects last year, as their part of the financial contribution could not be provided on time. The government set aside Rs 9,000 crore for rural sanitation in the 2016-17 Union budget but this has been accompanied by declining funds for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme. Quite a bit of the spending on Swachh Bharat mission is limited to big billboards and advertisements: publicity is more important than practice.

An assessment by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) shows that despite huge investments, the Swachh Bharat Mission is failing to achieve the desired results due to lack of credible on-ground data. There are many studies to show that the much publicized Swachha Bharat Mission is heading for a failure by any standards.

By this time my friend was saturated in his listening capacity to endless data and report presentation. He told me that I am not aware of a great mystery of Indian psyche. I was eager to know that and looked at him in rapt attention. As I stopped for a breath he took over from me.

“My dear friend”, he said in a calm and composed voice, “India is a land of cows and cattle; majority of the people worship cows as their goddess; what happens when someone worships someone?” He put a question to me to my surprise and I just staring at him in response.

He continued, “Slowly and steadily the worshipper automatically imitates the worshipped; the cows and cattle do not use any toilet; they just urinate and defecate in the open or anywhere they feel the natural urge to do; people have been observing for thousands of years this phenomenon and they are just following their deity. Besides they have been using the cattle dung for fuel, fertilizer, cleansing their houses, for maintaining the sanctity of holy places, for medical purposes (panchagavya) etc. The best way of worshipping a deity is to imitate him/her. We have about 300 million deities (gaus or cattle) and have a 1000 million gau bhakts (people who worship cow/cattle). It will not be an exaggeration to say that Gau-Mata is the typical paradigm for people in Gau-Rashtra. Therefore think of solutions to the problem of Swachh Bharat Ahiyan from the people’s belief point of view.” He concluded his intervention leaving me stupefied and I realized the meaning of what he said in the beginning, Transforming sanitation in India will require a large-scale change in the belief system of Indian people”.

“Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in Gau-Rashtra cannot but be

a Gobar and Human Faeces Rashtra”

(The writer is Retired Professor in Specialist in Waste management at XIM, Bhubaneswar. Email:

(Published on 03rd October 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 40)